Rape Culture: Why it Affects Us All
Updated: Apr 19
Trigger warning: This article will cover the topic of rape. Please feel free to skip this one if you are triggered by topics surrounding sexual violence.
In recent years, topics such as rape, sexual assault and #MeToo have dominated the headlines. We often hear about high profile cases, such as the rape and murder of Sarah Everard, but we don’t understand how rape culture normalises and trivialises sexual violence. We have have experienced rape culture in the form of groping or verbal harassment, without knowing it. This article aims to explain the root causes of rape culture, and what we can do about it.
What is rape culture?
Second wave feminists coined the term ‘rape culture’ in the US in the 1970s. Rape Crisis UK defines it as ‘a society where sexual violence and abuse is normalised and played down or laughed off’. This is worsened by gender inequality and discrimination in society.
Sexual violence may take the form of rape, child abuse, sexual assault and female genital mutilation, to name just a few examples. It includes ‘any kind of sexual activity or act (including online) that was unwanted’. Research has shown that the majority of sexual violence survivors are female and the majority of the perpetrators are male. However, men and boys can also experience sexual violence. Essentially, all acts of sexual violence are defined by a lack of consent.
What is consent?
According to Section 74 of the UK Sexual Offences Act, ‘a person consents if he agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice’. A person must have the physical and mental capacity to decide for themselves, without pressure from another. Until 1991, UK law equated marriage to consent which essentially decriminalised marital rape.
This act is one such example of rape culture, as it negates the experiences of survivors and grants the perpetrators impunity. Experiences of sexual violence are relatively common, with Rape Crisis stating that ‘More than 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men experience at least one of the following as an adult: rape, assault by penetration, sexual assault, indecent exposure or an attempt of one of these’. Due to the fact that less than one in 60 rape survivors who report their assaults see the perpetrator charged, Rape Crisis UK argues that ‘rape is essentially decriminalised in England and Wales’.
What are the existing myths surrounding rape and how have they created a rape ‘culture’?
Sexist name-calling, taking photos up a person’s skirt without permission (upskirting), rape jokes, sending unwanted photos or videos of a sexual nature are all examples of how rape culture has weaved its way into our society. Such behaviours trivialise the trauma involved with experiencing sexual violence, making it out to be ‘no big deal’ and fuelling misconceptions.
For example, common social discourse surrounding rape culture assumes that most survivors are raped late at night by strangers. This may be fuelled by high-profile cases, such as the rape and murder of Sarah Everard. Whilst Sarah’s story is undeniably horrific, it is also rare, as around 90% of rapists are known to the survivor.
"men may be 230 times more likely to be raped themselves than to be falsely accused"
Another common myth is that all survivors are women and all perpetrators are male. According to Rape Crisis UK, although ‘the majority of sexual assaults and rapes are committed by men against women and children’, sexual violence can also be committed by women. Men may be 230 times more likely to be raped themselves than to be falsely accused. What is more, false allegations are extremely rare. A study by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), quoted by Channel 4, estimates that false claims only account for 0.62% of rape cases.
Nonetheless, it remains unquestionable that women are the most affected by sexual violence and the implications of rape culture.
Even after a case is brought forward, claims may not result in prosecution for a variety of reasons: the claimant may have been pressured into withdrawing their case, the prosecution may lack sufficient evidence to convict the accused, or the survivor may find the legal process too difficult or emotionally draining to continue with.
Why is rape culture harmful?
Firstly, rape culture normalises and trivialises traumatic experiences.
By questioning whether a survivor was drunk, wearing revealing clothing or whether they said no, we put the emphasis on the survivor’s actions and place the blame on them. We question why they failed to prevent their own assault and detract from why the perpetrator decided to harm another person in this way.
This not only fuels a survivor’s trauma, but also forces them to assume personal responsibility for something they cannot control. It may force people to change their routines (e.g. paying for a taxi rather than walking home) which puts a ‘tax’ onto survivors, impeding women’s progress and therefore holding us all back, as this writer argues.
Survivors might feel that their experiences and feelings are invalid, making them less likely to come forward and speak out. It devalues women and girls and reinforces harmful and stereotypical ideas of violence as a ‘strong’ and ‘male’ behaviour.
"Over 98% of alleged rapists in England and Wales go free"
Such trivialisation also results in impunity for perpetrators. Over 98% of alleged rapists in England and Wales go free. In addition to avoiding criminal charges, many perpetrators do not face social stigma. Quoting a New York Times investigation, campaigner Laura Bates reveals that it may take an average of four women to accuse the same man of assault before any action is taken.
Rape culture also disproportionately affects marginalised communities. In its report, the UK-based, Black feminist organisation Imkaan emphasises that violence against minoritised women and girls is continuously seen through a ‘reductive’ lens which resorts to ‘cultural’ explanations and drives simplistic narratives to justify violence against this group. Consequently, this reinforces cultural stereotypes and racism whilst preventing nuanced policymaking which would ideally move away from simplified reductions based on ‘specific manifestations such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation and “honour-based” violence’ (such violence may seek to ‘defend’ the honour of a ‘family or community').
In other words, sexual violence is always intersectional and even more so when it is directed towards minoritised communities. This intersectionality must be present in our response to such violence.
Disabled people and members of the LBGTQ+ community also experience higher than average levels of sexual violence due to homophobic and ableist attitudes. Such trauma is made worse through victim-blaming and social stigma surrounding disability and sexuality which prevent meaningful discussion and progress from taking place.
Finally, rape culture undermines the experiences of male survivors. One survey estimates that 54,000 male adults (aged 16 or above) have been raped, in comparison to 1.1 million women. Patriarchal norms dictate that men must be strong, whereas experiencing sexual violence can make a man feel powerless and ashamed. This means that the issue of sexual violence against men can remain hidden, fuelling the myth that men can only be perpetrators.
How is rape culture visible in public discourse?
There is, of course, the Harvey Weinstein case which reinvigorated the #MeToo debate and prompted the downfall of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. However, this was only after actresses who spoke out against him had been blacklisted.
Another international case is that of a 19-year-old British woman on trial for alleged false claims of gang rape in Cyprus. She was reportedly coerced into withdrawing her claim and her case is overshadowed by alleged legal failings and headlines such as ‘Ayia Napa “rape lie” Brit, 19, suffering with PTSD.’ Such headlines detract from the alleged crime and belie the fact that the case is ongoing.
Closer to home, there are allegations against Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the prevalence of rape culture in our education system. After Soma Sara founded the Everyone's Invited website in June 2020 to document sexual violence in schools, 54,000 allegations have appeared on the site, ranging from verbal harassment to rape.
In 2018, the University of Warwick temporarily suspended eleven male students for taking part in a group chat with numerous ‘jokes’ surrounding rape and sexual assault. The case prompted national outcry, a BBC documentary and a TED Talk by one of the girls discussed in the chat. It was only after widespread public criticism that the university reportedly ruled out the return of two perpetrators to campus and apologised for its mishandling of the case.
Solutions moving forward
So, what can be done? People must assume individual responsibility for the role they may inadvertently play. As stated by Gina Martin: "It’s not all men, but it’s too many." There needs to be greater understanding of the harm a ‘rape joke’ can cause, and how it fits into the larger puzzle of sexual violence. Such ‘jokes’ need to be called out and lower-level behaviour such as groping and verbal harassment should be condemned with bystanders intervening and criticising the perpetrators.
We need to acknowledge that anyone can experience or perpetrate sexual violence and that it does not centre around one gender. However, we must also understand that women, LGBTQ+ and disabled people are often most at risk. We need to stop blaming survivors for their experiences and start blaming perpetrators for their actions. We must call out gender stereotypes and raise awareness about the support services available. We must ensure that these services have adequate funding.
‘Enthusiastic consent’ must become the norm - we must actively seek a ‘yes’ rather than listening for a ‘no’. We need to ensure that people understand what consent is and what the different forms of sexual violence are. Understanding a problem is the first step towards solving it.
Finally, we need to listen. We need to believe survivors and support them in what they do next. Turning a blind eye is no longer an option.
If you have been affected by the content of this article, here are some organisations that may be able to help:
Rape Crisis - England and Wales
Survivors UK - for male survivors
Stay Brave - Male and LGBTQ survivors
Southall Black Sisters - Black, Asian and Caribbean women
For more resources on gender inequality, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka
Researched by Lara Brett